MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- People can die of a condition known as "broken heart syndrome," which researchers in Little Rock have found to be much more common in women than men.
In the first large-scale study of it, researchers found women suffer from broken heart syndrome 7.5 times more often than men, according to Dr. Abhishek Deshmukh, a cardiology fellow at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who led the study, which was presented at the American Heart Association conference in Orlando last year.
The syndrome manifests as heart attack-like symptoms that occur during sudden or continuing stress and may be triggered by a death, an emotional breakup or a major surprise, including good news.
In September, Joseph Lyon, 96, died the day after his wife, Ann Lyon, 93. Inseparable for 74 years of marriage, the Lyons were both bedridden at their Memphis home, and Joseph told his family he was hanging on to life only for her.
Their son, Joseph Lyon Jr., thinks in some sense his father died of a broken heart.
Using a 2007 national database of 6,230 cases, the study found that 89 percent of the patients were women, and that women older than 55 were almost three times more likely to develop broken heart syndrome than younger women. Most patients recover in a week or two, but 2 percent die.
"It's fair to say a woman's heart is more vulnerable than a man's heart," said Deshmukh, "but we don't know why." Stressful events can spur a rush of adrenaline and other stress hormones that cause the heart to swell and impair its functions. Some research has found more adrenaline receptors on cells in men's hearts, said Deshmukh, possibly making men less vulnerable to the surge.
It's not uncommon in elderly couples for a wife or husband to die shortly after the other, said Michael Escamilla, executive director of Kirby Pines Retirement Community in Memphis, especially in cases where people dedicate their lives to caring for their sick spouses.
Patients with the condition typically have chest pains and shortness of breath, as with a heart attack, and may pass out, said Dr. Dan Otten, a cardiologist with the Stern Cardiovascular Foundation in Germantown, Tenn. Their EKGs may be abnormal, but their arteries are not blocked, he said. Instead, doctors find "the apex of the heart can become enlarged and looks like a balloon while the base is normal," he said.
In fact, takotsubo cardiomyopathy is one medical name given the condition by Japanese doctors who named it after the word for "octopus trap," because the heart looks like the octopus traps used by fisherman. Otten said treatment is usually with some of the same drugs used for congestive heart failure, such as ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers.
Elizabeth Vines, 65, was diagnosed with it in 2010. She awoke one day feeling a little pain across her chest and a shoulder. That night she felt it again, went to the emergency room, was placed in intensive care and spent three days in the hospital. Afterward, she said her doctor told her that what happened to her was rare, she had no blockage and not to worry because it would probably never happen again.
She could think of nothing in particular that provoked it. But Vines noted four surgeries in the past few years, none heart-related, and her long recoveries from them might have taken a toll.
Otten said there is no way to prevent the syndrome. Most people cannot escape life's pressures and heartbreaks.
"If a parent dies, I can't tell people to control their grief," he said.
(Barbara Bradley is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. Contact her at bradley(at)commercialappeal.com.)